Survival Kit (Not Just) For Customer Support

For some of my friends it’s hard to believe it, but I do love working in customer support. There’s a certain kind of joy that comes from helping people, that can hardly be felt if you’re just interacting with machines all day. However, for every 50 customers who are all happy and grateful, there’s always one or two who sound upset, angry, demanding, frustrated, or all of above.
This one angry customer usually had the most impact on my mood, no matter how many friendly and pleasant interactions I’ve had before that day. When I was quite stressed on my own due to external circumstances, one APPALLED person shouting in ALL CAPS could easily leave me helpless. It’s changed a lot in the last few weeks, all due to one book recommended by a colleague – The Customer Service Survival Kit by Richard S. Callagher.
The guidelines covered there is collected from training materials for policemen, hostage negotiators, crisis counselors, or marriage therapists, backed up by psychological research and wrapped up together with a nice dose of humor. Some of the tips sound very counterintuitive at first, but they all work amazingly well since the first time I dared to apply them. I no longer freak out when dealing with angry customers, cause now I have some perfect guidelines to follow. Here is a couple of them:

Lean into the criticism and don’t defend yourself

 Imagine I arrive at your store shouting:
– I paid $500 for this piece of crap that doesn’t work at all, you freaking cheaters better give me money back!
What’s the first thing that comes to your mind when you hear that? If you’re anything like me and most people, I bet it’s not remotely similar to: “Oh no, you must have had a really terrible experience with us! Please tell me more about this”.
I know what you’re thinking – if you give up and agree with me even though I’m terribly wrong, I will treat this as a proof that it’s all your fault, and become even more angry and demanding. Actually, the opposite is true. If you start defending yourself, the whole conversation will revolve around who’s right and who’s wrong without moving anywhere close to a solution. On the other hand, if you manage to make me feel heard and understood, this will diffuse the tension, and eventually get me listening to you. And the easiest way to make people feel heard is to…

Validate their feelings

You don’t have to agree with me to acknowledge the fact that I have certain feelings about the situation, and the full right to feel them. If I’m having a bad day I might be clearly overreacting to what has happened, but blowing things out of proportion happens to all of us sometimes.
Even if it’s all my fault and the smartphone doesn’t work because I broke it myself, or I simply didn’t read the instructions and have been trying to turn it on with the volume button for the whole time, in the world as I see it I paid a ton of money for something that doesn’t even start, and this made me feel angry. Most of the people would feel angry if they bought something that didn’t work. Validating my feelings doesn’t mean you have to agree with everything I am saying, or pay with your own money for a replacement.

Ask the right questions and show genuine interest

This is a double win. Not only asking detailed questions will help you understand what exactly happened and how we can move on from there, it will also make me slowly switch into a rational mode, and calm down enough to work towards a solution. Good questions will focus on facts, step by step scenarios of what happened and when, or optionally my feelings about them. Any question starting with a Why has a potential to make me need to explain myself and switch back into the defensive mode.

Don’t criticize, educate, or prove that they are wrong

Yes, we all know we should be doing regular backups, use complicated passwords, read the whole license agreement before clicking accept, and visit the dentist at least twice a year for a periodic checkup. No, reminding me of these after something awful has happened doesn’t make the situation any better, it makes me feel even worse. Even if your intentions are crystal-clear and you’d like to protect me from even more pain in the future, you can still rephrase all of these in a way that makes me feel less of an idiot. A good way could be to tell me that you were in my shoes yourself, and that you managed to get out from there. Now when was the last time you backed up all your stuff?

Make it all about them and focus on what you can do

I don’t care that you didn’t arrive to an appointed meeting and didn’t answer my calls because your colleague was supposed to let you know and he didn’t. I don’t care that updating my contact information on the telephone is not allowed by your company policy. I couldn’t care less that you’re closing in 15 minutes and cleaned the slicing machine already, so you’re not going to sell me any sliced cheese tonight. All I care about is my own agenda – and that’s natural and understandable.
Even if you have no good news to deliver, you can still rephrase your message and focus on what’s in it for me. “We can only help you with the default features of our products, as custom code modifications are outside the scope of our support policy.” is a very accurate answer, and also one that ignores my agenda completely. You can reframe the same message as “Even though our support staff are not developers, our customization partners at XYZ will be happy to help you with this. Here is their contact info: “ that will give me some further steps I can follow.

Show them they are okay, even if they messed up

Overreacting is a natural part of being a human. We all have our bad days and occasionally turn into four-year-olds. Once we’ve solved the problem together and everyone’s agenda is met, I’ll probably feel completely embarrassed that I came into the store shouting at such nice people as you. (Apologize to every phone marketer I’ve ever been nasty to. It’s not you, it’s me). Just saying I’m welcome to come back anytime will make a huge difference and help build a lasting relationship.

Apply in real life too

The best part of all of this is, the tips covered in this book are not only helpful in customer support, but in pretty much every area of human interactions. The author says that what he usually heard after his training session was “I can’t wait to try this at home!”. Out of all the books I’ve read this year, this one has had the biggest impact on my day-to-day live – I’m more resistant to stress, much more efficient at my work, and spend much less time procrastinating and freaking out about delivering bad news. If you work primarily with people, this book is a must. If you don’t, it will still have a lot to offer for you.

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